Radio Interview with Commander, JFC Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry on NPR "Morning Edition"
Hosted by Renee Motagne
MONTAGNE: I want to ask you a question, it may just be for our information, but just so we’re clear on this, could we start by having you sort out for us briefly the military landscape at this moment? That is what precisely are the different missions at this point in time of the US forces, which you command of course; and the NATO International Security Assistance Force.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Renee, our coalition military forces in Afghanistan have got two very broad missions. The first one is continuing to support the Afghan government and continue our campaign in partnership with them against the al-Qaeda and its associated movements and the government of Afghanistan. The second broad mission is the support for the building of the Afghan national security forces, so we play a very central role in the standing up and the training of the new Afghan National Army, and we also play a very important role together with our partners from the Department of State and the Germans, in the building of the Afghan National Police Forces.
MONTAGNE: But US forces will still be, well, US forces that are now or have been say outside Kandahar, will they be moved out, moved east, moved to a different place? Will there be some sort of mixing or -- That’s the part I don’t get. Or out by Herat. Are they gone from those areas?
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: What you don’t want to do is when you look at the NATO ISAF mission, the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan set against the United States coalition forces operations in Afghanistan, you don’t want to coin those as an either/or.
First of all, NATO has been in Afghanistan since the fall of 2003 and assumed the mission for the security of the greater Kabul area in May of 2004. In the fall of 2004 they expanded to northern Afghanistan. Then in May of 2005, expanded to western Afghanistan. All of that time those expansions are going on, remember, of the 26 members of NATO the United States is one, and a very important one militarily. So even as NATO has been moving forward with this expansion the United States has been part of that NATO force. We have US military personnel in NATO headquarters.
You mentioned earlier, one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. One of those teams is actually in southwestern Afghanistan and it’s under a NATO command. A US PRT under a NATO command.
When NATO then moves this summer say by the end of July and expands from the north and the west into southern Afghanistan, the United States will also be a big contributor to that southern force. We will have infantry forces, we will have a large force of helicopters in support of the NATO combined brigade that will be in the south, and we will be providing logistics, intelligence support, and other kinds of support. So that southern force will have a large US contingent along with the British, the Canadians, the Dutch, the Romanians, and with an Australian contingent there.
That will leave our forces then predominant in eastern Afghanistan, what’s called Regional Command East. We anticipate perhaps by the end of this calendar year, if not before, but maybe no later than the end of this calendar year – political decisions need to be made that the NATO force will expand to include Regional Command East. But those forces in Regional Command East will be about like they are now. It will be predominantly US, but will now be under a NATO flag.
MONTAGNE: The US is remaining in the east because that is the area of Afghanistan that borders the part of Pakistan where there’s an overlap, we understand, with al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: The presence of our forces in Regional Command East, this NATO force continues to expand. The United States will be the largest troop contributor to the overall NATO mission, will provide the largest number of capabilities. So NATO comes around and takes over in Southern Afghanistan. There will be force adjustments on our part, but our commitment then to the overall NATO mission is to provide what we call a combat brigade and that combat brigade is already in Eastern Afghanistan supporting stability operations and reconstruction efforts. Then that brigade will just remain in place. It’s where it is and where it will continue to be stationed, and that’s one of our big contributions that we’ll be making to the NATO mission.
MONTAGNE: In terms of this changeover, and then we’ll move on to some other things connected to this, but in terms of this changeover, on the one hand Afghans living at one point where Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds are. They’ve complained over time that American troops can be too aggressive, complained about kicking down doors and firing into compounds where there might be women or children. But I gather some of these same folks are now worried that the NATO troops or the troops under NATO command won’t be possibly eager enough to go after the Taliban or foreign al-Qaeda fighters if they appear, that their villages will be vulnerable.
Is that a problem in your estimation?
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: The starting point for the Afghans is the Afghan aspiration from President Kharzai to the man on the street, is what they want most is they want the capability so they can exercise their own sovereignty, so they can provide for their own security. Key to that is the building of an Afghan National Army and the standing up of an Afghan National Police Force.
What we have found within the US forces and the coalition forces increasingly as the Afghan National Army is able to take to the field, fight side by side with us, and in some limited areas leading operations, and as the Afghan National Police develop more capability, this entire question then of the ways that foreign military forces operate within Afghanistan, that challenge then starts to transition to one where the Afghan people are very comfortable and very self-confident with their own forces in the lead.
With regard to NATO and as it proceeds with the mission, Renee, the NATO forces are coming into Afghanistan with absolute proper rules of engagement needed to conduct the mission that they will assume in southern Afghanistan, and I’m very confident of their capability to perform the mission well.
MONTAGNE: What about the Afghan troops? And there’s a difference between Afghan troops and police. What about the Afghan troops? When will they be ready to go it alone? Is there a gap here between a changeover with coalition troops and the ability of Afghan – Are coalition forces there, US forces and NATO forces there until the Afghan troops are ready? And when would that be?
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Trying to define where the Afghan forces are today, the Army forces and the police forces, it’s important Renee, to go back to the baseline of how Afghanistan looked in 2002, and I know you visited there in 2002. The amount of progress that’s been made since that time is absolutely extraordinary.
MONTAGNE: There were no troops. For all intents and purposes there were no troops.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: There were no troops. In fact, indeed, the Afghan people having gone through three decades of civil war, war against the Soviets, they had been 30 years without having seen an Afghan National Army that was respected by the people, competent. They had been 30 years without an Afghan National Police Force. Three decades of this warfare leading to a country where there’s a 20 percent literacy rate, where the destruction of human capital was absolutely phenomenal. When you look at the infrastructure of Afghanistan as it existed in 2002 –- no roads, no communication system. Set against that where we are in 2006 -– Afghan National Army of about 34,000; Afghan National Police trained and equipped, about 30,000. We’re finding steady progress now in both the security forces, the Army doing quite well, becoming a more resilient force.
But the question of how long it will take for the Afghan Army to conduct independent operations is something that’s going to need more time.
For instance in the American Army if we talk about a battalion commander. A battalion commander is a lieutenant colonel, about 20 years of experience, and commands about 600 soldiers. Twenty years of experience and training to get the commander ready to go.
So in Afghanistan the challenge is then growing leaders at every level within the security forces. It’s that development of human capital that’s going to take time and patience and commitment on our part. We’re making great progress.
For instance in one of the provinces of Afghanistan, in Zabul, there are several districts where the Afghan National Army conducts the lead in providing security operations. The 2002 baseline where there is absolutely nothing that we’re trying to, we have nothing to build upon. But pretty phenomenal that in that period of time we’ve achieved that success. We’re hopeful over the next several years with our partnership program with the Afghan Army, working closely with the police, and more help as NATO continues to expand its presence there, we’re cautiously optimistic that over the next several years we’ll see some important gains in the Afghan National Army and the police forces and their capabilities.
MONTAGNE: What about the police? Are they different, as in Iraq there’s a difference between the level of competence of the army and the level of the police. Are the police different? Do you hear complaints when you go to especially southern and eastern provinces, that the Taliban are coming into villages, that they’re well armed, and that the villages don’t have any police there? In some cases I gather the police are protecting say the governor. There’s just plain not enough of them, they’re not well trained, and they’re not available to the average person in the average village.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Renee, it’s an important distinction you’re making between the progress of the army and the police to date. The army program when it began in 2002 was a very comprehensive program that included training, equipping, mentorship, the building of facilities, and that program has delivered now by the year 2006 some impressive results, again getting back to this baseline that we begin with that’s quite low.
On the police program, a very aggressive program that was developed in 2002 which focused on the training of the police, but the comprehensive program to deliver equipment, communications, facilities for the police, that program did not really become fully developed and we’d say resourced in terms of the investments that would be needed to support this, until 2005. So the police program in that regard is a bit behind that of the army. I’m hopeful that we’ll see working with our Department or State colleagues and as I said, the Germans, I think we’ll see improvements of the police forces over the next year and we’ll start to see some of the effects delivered in the summer and the fall.
There’s a very comprehensive reform program that’s going on within the Ministry of the Interior and on the police wing where good leaders are being selected beginning at the highest levels, working down towards the provincial and district level over the next several months, where I think the leadership will improve. There’s pay and rank reform that’s going on. Getting back to this question of leadership is absolutely essential in terms of the long-term improvements of the national security forces. So we’ll see the delivery of those effects over the summer and the fall, but it’s fair to say that the police program is not as far along right now as the army program is. It will be important to stay after this because incidents of violence that we see, causes of insecurity within Afghanistan as we see, some of this is caused by Taliban, some of it’s caused by insurgents, but there’s a degree out there of criminality, narco-trafficking. There are questions that are out there of tribal violence and fights between tribes in various provinces that are much more appropriately handled by a police force than an army.
MONTAGNE: And corruption? Within the police force there has been some concern about vulnerability to corruption or actual corruption.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Absolutely, it is a threat to the police force. But once again this comprehensive reform program that’s starting to work its way through the ranks beginning at the most senior levels here in December of just this past year where President Kharzai had selected 31 senior police commanders, they have a National Police Force in Afghanistan, and then is just getting ready to make his decisions for the next level of police reform which go down to the provincial police chiefs. I’m cautiously optimistic here as well, Renee, that what we’ll see unfold over the next year is improvements in leadership and with this pay and rank reform that’s now being implemented throughout the police force, I think this should make some dent in this problem of corruption.
MONTAGNE: We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about a resurgence of the Taliban, a spring offensive if you will, but also just more Taliban acting more boldly in southern Afghanistan. More attacks and using different tactics copied, it would appear, from Iraq. Roadside bombs, suicide bombs. How big of a concern is that? What are US troops able to do to contain that?
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Renee, first of all when we talk about the security in Afghanistan, sometimes when asked the question ‘How’s the security in Afghanistan?’ I’ll ask the question back, ‘What province are we talking about?’ And then if the answer is a particular province I’ll ask the question again, ‘Which district are we talking about?’
Afghanistan’s security is uneven. In the 34 provinces, though, the trend lines consistently from 2002 have been in the right direction. Indeed in the Eastern part of Afghanistan right now we’re conducting an offensive operation together with the Afghan National Army which I think will lead to the best security ever to exist in Khonar and Nuristan Province with right behind that the government of Afghanistan moving forward with reconstruction projects. In southeastern Afghanistan and the main big improvements of security over time.
You were asking about southern Afghanistan. What we see in southern Afghanistan, first of all, the starting point is not all violence in southern Afghanistan is attributable to Taliban. Other sources, Criminality, narco-trafficking, tribal infighting. Having said that, my sense is and our sense is within the command that in particular districts of southern Afghanistan, say the areas that are called the northern Kandahar province, northern Helmand province, and the Orizgan province in Western Orizgan, I think it’s fair to say the Taliban influence is stronger there than it was one year ago. What accounts for that?
It gets back to we’re at a point in Afghanistan right now in our overall campaign, our collective international Afghan campaign, in Afghanistan, where increasingly security can be best delivered by the extension of good governance, justice, economic reconstruction. That is transforming conditions in areas that heretofore never had the flag of Afghanistan planted in them. Remote districts, remote areas in which is it the provision of social services, economic opportunity, reasonable security forces such as you asked earlier about the police, where that combination then can get the people within a particular area then in support of the government of Afghanistan as they find a better life for themselves and turn against those that would try to push them in the direction of the terrorists.
In southern Afghanistan you’ve got areas in which the government of Afghanistan has not up to this point advanced and established a firm presence. It’s within that area of a vacuum that Taliban in certain cases has established a greater area of influence.
What you’ll see now is over the course of the spring, the summer and through the fall is a variety of conditions will change in southern Afghanistan. President Kharzai has selected a group over the last year of very good governors in southern Afghanistan. Absolutely critical in terms of establishing better governance. We’ll see improvements of the police force as police reform takes hold and more police have been deployed to southern Afghanistan. The Afghan National Army will have increasing strength in southern Afghanistan and spread out to different bases. Very importantly, maybe most importantly, in terms of this spring, summer and fall with the NATO expansion into southern Afghanistan, with the increased presence of international military forces, all very capable, we will see then a much larger presence which will provide for the security which will enable behind that the reconstruction and the governance to improve and we’ll see more stability down there.
My anticipation is then perhaps by this fall we’ll see conditions changing and I’m very confident of that having over two tours of duty in Afghanistan, over two different years, witnessed the same phenomenal transformation in other provinces of Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: General Eikenberry, Afghanistan now accounts for nearly 90 percent of the world’s supply of opium from which most of Europe’s heroin comes. I bet when you go to the south and the east of Afghanistan you see poppies waving in the wind all through fields. You can go a mile or two outside of Kandahar and see poppies being grown.
The military has been careful to stay away from eradication, arguing that it will alienate the very farmers and local people that it needs to help, whose help it needs to fight back the Taliban over these past few years and al-Qaeda.
But the problem has gotten so big now and the drug trade is partly supporting the enemy. Can the military afford not to tackle it?
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: First of all, Renee, the military does not have the leading role, our military, coalition military does not have the leading role in what ultimately is a law enforcement problem and a law enforcement challenge.
Having said that, we do provide an enormous amount of support for these efforts of interdiction and law enforcement. We provide intelligence support. We provide support for planning. We provide transportation support. That is if an interdiction force is required to move by helicopter to an area where they’ll conduct their interdiction operations from, our forces will provide those helicopters. If that force requires medical evacuation support, if they require close air support should they get into a dangerous situation, all of those tasks belong to our command and I think we do a good job of providing support for those. But in the end, this is ultimately a law enforcement effort.
The challenge that not the US military has, but the international community collectively has and the Afghan people have, this is an enormous challenge. You pointed out properly, estimates are 90 percent of the world’s poppy comes from Afghanistan. But you’ve got to juxtapose that against another important statistic and that is that Afghanistan is the fourth poorest country in the world. Then let’s add one more fact into this, it consumes far less than one percent of the world’s opium.
So there is a demand issue that has to be addressed here fairly. It’s a complicated effort that’s going to have to be sustained here to fight this problem, and a comprehensive effort. It has the aspect of law enforcement, it has an aspect of education of the people. There are alternative livelihoods that must be offered to a farmer who has, in the fourth poorest country in the world, if we eradicate there’s instances where we may be consigning that farmer and his family to starvation over the winter. And there is the question of eradication.
Over the past several months I think we’ve seen probably the effort to date within Afghanistan of a very cooperative effort, of a good governor in Helmand province, a very brave Governor Daoud, with the Afghan Ministry of Interior and the police and the Afghan National Army in general support, moving forward with eradication as they’ve tried to tie in with great international help the offer of alternative livelihoods to farmers as eradication moves forward.
But Renee, at the end of the day this is a very tough problem. We know from our experiences in South America as a nation, and the international community knows from experiences in Thailand, that to take on a problem of this magnitude we have to be ready to have a very sustained, comprehensive effort that’s going to last several decades in order to beat it.
MONTAGNE: But as you have just said, the drug trade has become a source of violence which affects your troops.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: It’s a source of violence in Afghanistan, and clearly we keep an eye very heavily on the possibility of narco-trafficking, then funding terrorism and narco-trafficking being linked to Taliban and extremist movements. So we keep an eye on that and we, in terms of our own operations, in terms of the work that we do on the intelligence front we stay after it.
MONTAGNE: Just one last question, and actually the best for the last. It’s what I’m most interested in. I gather you make a trip approximately every week to remote areas of the country. Could you tell us about one of those places, one of those days, and just a few details about that? Also what you think you’re accomplishing?
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well Renee, trying to do a couple of things with those trips. First of all, one of the many missions that our military has here is to help in various ways to extend the reach of the government of Afghanistan out into the provinces and the districts, so one of the things that I will do is when I make a trip by helicopter, by our C-130 Air Force aircraft, I’ll invite Ministers of Afghanistan to make the trip with me and we’ll have leaders from the army and the police go. I’ve found over time that that’s provided great benefits to the government of Afghanistan.
We’re still at a stage where it’s hard for them to get outside of Kabul. So it’s just great when you get out to the bazaars, you get out to meet with the tribal leaders, and there’s all the leaders from Kabul that are talking to the people, trying to connect with them, and connecting very effectively.
Why I go out beyond that is of course I’m going out to see the soldiers and sailors and airmen of our command and see how they’re doing and see how we’re progressing in the campaign.
There’s another expression though that is worth remembering in terms of what has to be done out there at all levels of our command and is done by all levels of our command. We’ve talked increasingly over the last several years as we continue to move forward in Afghanistan with the idea of what we call the human terrain. The military, let’s say back in the 1980s and ‘90s we talked about the geographic terrain, that we fight over the hills, the forests that we go through. We’re in a campaign in Afghanistan which is about stability operations, strengthening the state of Afghanistan which is about a counter-insurgency where the key terrain is the human terrain. That is, what do the people of Afghanistan think about their own security? What do they think about their government? How confident are they?
So it’s those walks through the bazaars, it’s talking to the governors, it’s talking to the tribal leaders where we’re working over the human terrain of Afghanistan.
I tell you, I always come back with tremendous confidence when I proceed on those trips to see the courage of the Afghan people, to see how hopeful they are right now about their future and to see the great respect and the great gratitude they have for the American armed forces and our coalition friends and the NATO forces that are there in Afghanistan every day doing great things to help build the middle ground of Afghan civil society and to help with the stability of that nation to make it a nation that’s able to stand firm against the threats of international terrorism and militant extremism.
MONTAGNE: Could you just describe the last –- For Americans who don’t really get it, could you just describe the last village that you went to? Not elaborately, but just mountainous or dusty or hot or cold, or that sort of thing.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: The last town that I visited was the town of Mehtar Lam in Lagman province in eastern Afghanistan. A provincial capital. As we landed there in our firebase, for those who have ever seen the movie Beau Jest, a fortress kind of outpost here with about 100 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines that were inside with Department of State and our US Department of Agriculture, all there. Helping with the development of the provincial government.
As you land at Mehtar Lam, I think the elevation is about 7,500 feet, a little bit higher than Denver, Colorado, looking at the mountains with the snow caps that go up to about 12,000-13,000 feet surrounding Mehtar Lam. Getting in our vehicles then to take the mile ride down to meet the Governor, and as we’re going over the dusty roads there, passing by fields and nomadic tribesmen with camels as they’re going by and giving us the thumbs-up and waving, and getting down to the town where a huge town hall meeting with about 100 of the tribal leaders in their turbans all standing up and petitioning the Ministers who I was traveling with with their grievances and their proposals for development there in Mehtar Lam city. Then following that with a walk-through of the bazarre where we heard concerns from the people about what was bothering them in their lives which would range anything from the government not allowing the shopkeepers to set up their shops right in the middle of the street, to the price of potatoes being too high.
MONTAGNE: Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry is the Commanding General of US and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Thanks very much for joining us.
LT. GEN. EIKENBERRY: Renee, thank you.